Are Locavores Loco?

Stephen Budiansky loves eating vegetables from his own garden and appreciates the value of fresh ingredients, but still wonders whether the “local food” movement has gone overboard.  From his recent NYT op-ed:

the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus.

As Budiansky explains, transportation does not account for the bulk of energy use in our food system.  There are also substantial environmental gains to be had by growing food where it is most productive to do so.  Growing food locally may mean less shipping, but it often means producing far less per acre, and that means taking up more land to produce the same amount of food — land that could be used for other things, including habitat.  Indeed, were it not for increases in agricultural productivity over the past several decades, hundreds of millions (if not billions) of additional acres would be under plow.  Budiansky has more on his blog here and here.

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